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Helicopter Survey Mixes
Business and Pleasure


Seeley Swan Pathfinder
February 11, 1999

by Mike Thompson
Wildlife Biologist
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
Game Range Column for the Pathfinder


I haven't seen the video footage that Joe Bender shot from the helicopter during our annual elk survey. But, if some of it's a little shaky and out of focus, you can blame me.

As most of you know, Joe is proprietor of High Basin Sports in Seeley Lake. Acting in his unofficial capacity as chief conduit of outdoor information to hunters in the Seeley-Swan, he graciously volunteered his services to FWP as an observer in the helicopter during our survey of the Game Range last January 9.

It was a joy ride with a practical purpose. FWP's survey protocol calls for a Bell helicopter and three observers (including the pilot) to meet the assumptions of the computer model we use to analyze the data. When this survey method was undergoing research and development in the mid-to-late 1980s, the computer model could actually detect differences in biologists' abilities to spot elk from different types of helicopters, using different numbers of observers. Based on this information, we selected a particular helicopter and survey method back in 1989 and have stuck with it ever since. That way, we can rest assured that trends in elk counts are not biased by changes in survey methods over time.

So, it's mandatory for us to arrange for a third pair of eyes to ride along with the pilot and a FWP biologist. It's merely a pleasant coincidence that this serious business can also be a lot of fun.

I could see that Joe was prepared for the fun part when he carried his video camera into the helicopter, and I'll have to admit it made me a little nervous in the beginning. The survey protocol requires that all three observers keep their eyes peeled, with every observer constantly scanning the ground under and between every tree and bush within his or her assigned scanning radius. When someone spots an elk or deer, all three observers focus their efforts on estimating vegetation cover, rounding up all the animals in the group, classifying them according to sex and age-class, and watching for deer huddled under trees or a bull elk slipping away undetected. In the case of deer, we often only get a glimpse from which to estimate this information.

Nevertheless, I didn't make a stink about the camera, and the helicopter ride from the Game Range headquarters to our first survey unit on the top of Boyd Mountain turned out to be a good opportunity for Joe to shoot some video of the landscape. But, as we began to go to work, I rumbled and mumbled a little until I had convinced myself that Joe had set the camera aside and was giving first priority to his observational duties. Soon, he was swiping observations from under my nose and I knew we would have a good survey.

It wasn't long before we bumped into our first bunch of bulls. They were two spikes and two raghorns under Snoopy's chin. (You can find Snoopy on Boyd Mountain, can't you?) Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the video camera flash up and noticed Joe firing a few quick shots from the hip.

The next bunch of bulls also numbered four, but they were each classified as "mature bulls" (i.e. at least three years old, judging from the antlers). Our pilot hovered over these bulls for an extra few moments after we had collected all the necessary information, so Joe got a chance to bring the camera up to his eye and steady it, as well as anything can be steadied in a vibrating helicopter.

The next elk we spotted were a group of five mature bulls, then a single mature, then a lone spike, then a raghorn and mature bull together. By that time, we had also counted dozens of white-tailed deer and mule deer, and we finished up this first flight of the day with a group of seven cows and three calves at the edge of the timber on the south slope of Boyd Mountain. Unfortunately, Joe had run out of film by that time.

I explained that this is the way it always is with most of the bigger bulls in winter. We see them in singles and small groups, usually in forest cover and often at surprisingly high elevations in deep snow. Although cows enter the winter in their best physical condition of the year, bulls are still recovering from their exhausting rutting rituals and don't have the energy to mix socially with lots of other elk. Sure enough, there wasn't a single bull bigger than a spike in the herd of 573 elk we counted in the bunchgrass prairie above Highway 83 on a later flight that morning.

Gary Burnett, Director of Development for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, was waiting to take Joe's place when we landed to refuel. As Joe and I parted ways after a great morning, my thoughts turned once again to his video. I remembered how it was filmed, with steady footage of bull elk interspersed among numerous other fleeting shots of passing landscape through a huge, vibrating, Plexiglas bubble.

I've got a hunch that the helicopter ride Joe's camera recorded was a lot more stressful than the one Joe and I enjoyed. Tell me if I'm wrong, Joe, but I would caution anyone who's prone to motion sickness to "read the book" instead of watching the movie.

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